Teach financial literacy and curb payday lending

A recent article from the Washington Post described Black Friday, and all the news coverage of that shopping extravaganza, as a spectacle of the poor performing for the entertainment of the rest of us. The writer likened Black Friday to “The Hunger Games,” the science fiction movie series. In that story line, the provinces that lost a war are forced to send their best young people to a competition where they are televised as they hunt and kill each other, for the amusement of the pampered dilettantes of the winning country.

The article suggested people of higher income don’t have to bother with the frantic bargain hunting of Black Friday. Only poor people will fight each other for cheap television sets and video games.

None of the news coverage I saw reported how much of that Black Friday shopping was done to purchase necessities, how much was spent for things not really needed, or how much was spent with borrowed money that the borrowers couldn’t afford to pay back.

A few days earlier, the financial web site Wallethub posted a report New Mexico ranks third highest in the amount of money individuals spend compared to their earnings. The report also said, adjusted for income and cost of living, New Mexico ranks highest in personal spending on housing and utilities, on “all other consumption” and on credit card and personal debt. These statistics are simply awful.

Our poverty numbers remain grim. U.S. Census figures say about 19 percent of New Mexicans live below the poverty line. More than 9 percent of households earn less than $10,000 per year; another 6.4 percent earn below $15,000; another 12 percent are below $25,000. About one-third of the state’s population is on Medicaid.

Charitable demand is relentless because the need seems endless. I’m being asked every day, by mailings, by fliers on my front door, by religious organizations, by the high school football team and by TV stations, to donate money, canned food, warm socks, even diapers. The statistics say one in three New Mexico children goes hungry.

Some New Mexicans who don’t have much money aren’t savvy about managing what little money they have. Moving from a background of poverty into today’s bewildering world of too-easy credit and infinite inducements to spend, perhaps they never had the chance to learn the necessary skills. We’d do them a service by giving them a way to defend themselves: offering education in financial literacy. It’s so urgently needed that it should start in elementary school. I’m told financial literacy education is consistent with the Common Core curriculum so it’s not impossible, but there doesn’t seem to be much flexibility in our public schools’ curriculum these days.

Which brings us to the payday lending industry. According to the website of a lender called Payday Today, there are at least 670 payday lending centers in New Mexico, and the state ranks 10th among states as having the most payday lenders. This is not something to be proud of.

Attempts to cap payday lending interest rates by legislation died quickly in the 2014 legislature; the legislative record shows the bills didn’t pass a single committee. Neither did a bill to cap the rate on title loans – loans secured by the title to a car.

As I have said before and intend to keep repeating, New Mexico is the state that couldn’t pass fireworks legislation in a drought. It’s no surprise our legislators don’t have the moxie to resist pressure from any organized industry. I hope for better results in 2015, but don’t hold your breath.



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